Councillors have given their backing to plans to buy Ebbw Vale’s Festival Park shopping centre, after an attempt to halt the contentious proposal was defeated.
At a special meeting on Thursday, councillors voted in favour of Blaenau Gwent council purchasing the retail site subject to funding from the Welsh Government and a further report relating to commercial negotiations.
The move was opposed by the council’s Labour group though, who said the project was “too much of a risk and not a priority in the current financial climate”.
Minutes of the debate, which was not open to the press or public, say that Labour group leader, Cllr Steve Thomas, proposed deferring the decision to consider “newly presented information”.
The call was made after a councillor received late information “which could have a significant impact on the report”, the minutes state.
However the attempt to defer the decision was voted against.
Cllr Thomas then proposed supporting a “do nothing” option, as opposed to the alternative which was “acquisition of Festival Park shopping centre”.
The Labour group “strongly objected to the lack of proper consultation with the public on such a significant undertaking”, minutes of the meeting state.
They also felt the project was “underpinned by too many assumptions”, with worries over figures in a business case estimating the costs and predicted income.
But the option was also voted against, with members instead supporting the acquisition of the shopping centre by a majority vote.
The council also agreed that the “finalisation of the purchase arrangements” be made under delegated powers in consultation with the leader or deputy leader.
A further report relating to commercial negotiations will be presented to the council before any purchase arrangements are finalised.
Councillor Dai Davies, deputy leader and executive member for regeneration and economic development, said the council has agreed “to continue commercial discussions to acquire the site and developing it for the future”.
“The plans could include a future mixed use development including public sector activity, high quality business units to bring employment opportunities and housing,” he said.
“It is important to stress that further work is required with key partners like Welsh Government to try to secure the future of this vital strategic site in Blaenau Gwent.
“There may be other commercial parties interested in the site for its retail development potential and the council will not stand in the way of this should a potential bidder emerge.
“The final plan requires approval from full council to progress a purchase and development of the site and it is at this stage that we will lay out our plans in public consultations as there is no final case to consult on at the moment.
“Our clear objective when assessing any commercial opportunity is to provide value for money and not put council budgets and public finance at risk.”
But Cllr Thomas said Labour members unanimously opposed the decision because they “don’t see this as a priority project for the council to deliver”.
“There are far more pressing issues for the council to concentrate on, particularly in the current circumstances when there is likely to be a financial downturn following the pandemic,” he said.
“We are angry, but sadly, not surprised, that there has been no consultation on such a significant project.
“Residents who live near the site have had no information given to them, or had any say in the matter, which is an absolute disgrace.
“We also felt that financial assumptions within the report were overly optimistic and feel that there is a real danger of a heavy financial burden falling on the council taxpayer to stump up the cost.”
Plans were announced last year to turn the former UK Garden Festival site – which has 75 acres of parkland – into a leisure and tourist destination, but several stores have since closed and it is understood the site is now being sold.
Asset managers Metis Real Estate declined to comment on reports the site has been placed on the market for sale.